The transgressive comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film.
I am convinced that if Brüno (and Borat) hadn’t crossed over to mainstream multiplexes, it would have been proclaimed an avant-garde masterpiece. Perhaps this will occur in twenty or so years time. The film isn’t even notable for its comedy (it is, by the way, rip-roaringly funny). It’s the intellectual rigour with which Sacha Baron Cohen uses his creations to confront bigotry and intolerance. Creator Cohen is essentially carrying on a tradition created by the likes of the Marquis De Sade, Georges Bataille, and the Situationists. Or you could point to the film tradition of John Waters, Russ Meyer, the Cinema of Transgression movement, Catherine Breillat, Baise-Moi, and so on. By challenging society over what it considers offensive or disgusting, these artists have examined the construction of taboos and the repressive nature of particular societal norms. Whereas Borat wrapped this exploration up in the cuddly, roguish titular character, Brüno pushes the boundaries even further by directly confronting the audience’s expectations with the character’s shenanigans. And the film is being given warnings all over the show by reviewers for its apparent offensiveness—a clear statement that merely confirms what Cohen is in fact challenging.
The film’s initial controversy has been focused on whether Cohen is using homosexual stereotypes in a derogatory fashion. There’s a self-consciousness in the way Cohen “performs” a homosexual stereotype. He’s clearly aware of how he’s mimicking the stereotype. However, one of the dangers of “performing” minority-ness is that audiences may end up not realising that it was indeed a performance. (I have argued on The Lumière Reader previously about how N.W.A performed “black buck” stereotypes, and ended up being read as “black bucks”.) What results instead from a superficial reading is an upholding of the stereotype by the audience and media reaction. And Brüno is a potentially damaging stereotype if read without an awareness. One suspects the number of people who have left the screenings, the amount of people/reviews commenting on how the film is “disgusting”, the people who won’t even see the film because it features a gay Austrian, are more likely to ignore the subversive mimicry on show.
Brüno does push taboos stronger than Borat—the considerable nudity, sexual content, and offensive language is quite probably the most graphic ever incorporated in a mainstream Hollywood film. And some of the pranks are painful to watch for the sheer danger that Cohen and his crew put themselves in. But Cohen’s too smart for it to be that simple. His breakthrough creation, Ali G, was attacked for upholding “white” stereotypes of “black-ness”, when in actual fact Cohen was attacking the commodification of “black-ness” by “whites”. Borat became notorious for the film’s anti-Semitism, however, the film shows that despite the main character’s prejudices, the only nice characters in the film are people like the elderly Jewish couple, the “black” ghetto kids, and the queer community. Borat was critiquing the prejudice of its title character as much as it was the people with whom he interacted. In other words, Borat sided with the people who have historically been subjected to considerable prejudice. Brüno constructs a love story to humanise the behaviour on show. The relationship is the one antidote to Brüno’s destructive quest for stardom. The frankly incredible climactic scene highlights love conquering all, in spite of intolerance. For all the cruelty on show, Cohen is deep down a humanist.
That said, the film’s main targets are instead stardom, the obsession with celebrity, and general bigotry. The major way this film attempts to illustrate its critiques is through pranks (although there is contention over how much of the film is staged, which is an irrelevant debate if his ideas rather than his comedy are the focus). Pranks derive their power from cruelty, and one’s acceptance of pranks will depend on, a) how one feels about the victim, and b) the extent of the cruelty inflicted on the victim. This is perhaps why the treatment of the lovely Jewish couple in Borat garnered so much controversy, whereas no one felt sorry for the drunken racist frat-boys. In Brüno, there will be plenty who will enjoy conservative Congressman Ron Paul getting hit on, while it’s a completely understandable reaction by the audience on the talk-show in regards to Brüno’s presentation of his adopted African baby. That latter scene in particular has the potential to be controversial for Brüno’s potentially offensive race-baiting tactics. But while the audience show themselves as intolerant of one form of bigotry (and understandably so), they are far less tolerant of Brüno’s homosexuality right from the onset. And that’s even before Brüno shows them some graphic pictures. The film is showing that people who have to fight one form of prejudice, can often end up showing prejudice themselves.
But the joke’s not entirely on them. If it were Madonna or Angelina Jolie on the talk show instead, one wonders what kind of reverence the audience reaction would have, to what is ostensibly the same patronising exploitation of third world babies. And while it’s perhaps an all-too easy task taking on Southern hicks and religious figures with an overtly homosexual character (it’s not particularly illustrative in that regard), the extent to which people go in terms of attempting to achieve stardom is positively skewered. The parents who consider giving their toddlers liposuction to appear in a commercial, the agency who specialises in giving “advice” on which charity celebrities should focus on, the bottom-of-the-heap talk-shows that will take on any sort of character, the politicians who will run towards the sight of a camera and potential publicity no matter what the interview is going to be like, the model complaining about how hard walking up and down an runway is—all are part of the fifteen-minutes of fame environment that Brüno is critiquing.
Cohen’s film is aware of its voyeuristic roots—we are positioned by the camera shots and construction of the pranks to treat his audience as the objects of analysis. In fact, most of the film is us watching reactions to Brüno’s antics. This self-reflexivity not only places us in a subject position which identifies with a thoroughly dislikeable character—Brüno is, after all, not particularly nice—but we become positioned to judge random people’s and our own reactions to the main character’s behaviour, rather than judge Brüno himself. And the film pushes this self-reflexivity to critique our acceptance of this world, with its in-built pre-disposition to intolerance, bigotry, conservatism, and snobbery. Brüno ends up managing to push its transgressive ideas into the multiplexes. And for a film which, if you believe the hype, is apparently so over-the-top, it’s a hell of a feat to have pushed a taboo-busting avant-garde agenda through so surreptitiously.